It seems that Muslim women - particularly those living in western capitals- are destined to remain besieged by two debilitating discourses, which though different in appearance, are one in essence.
The first of these is conservative and exclusionist, sentencing Muslim women to a life of childbearing and rearing, lived out in the narrow confines of their homes at the mercy of fathers, brothers, and husbands. Revolving around notions of sexual purity and family honour, it appeals to religion for justification and legitimization.
The other is a "liberation" discourse that vows to break Muslim woman's bondage and free her of the oppressive yoke of an aggressive, patriarchal, and backward society. She is a mass of powerlessness and enslavement; the embodiment of seclusion, silence, and invisibility. Her only hope of deliverance from the cave of veiling and isolation lies in the benevolent intervention of this force of emancipation. It will save her from her hellishly miserable and bleak existence, to the promised heaven of enlightenment and progress.
It is a game of binaries that pits one stereotype against another: the wretched caged female Muslim victim and her ruthless jailer society against an idealized "west" that is the epitome of enlightenment, rationalism, and freedom. Those escapees who leave the herd are held up as living testimonies to the arduousness of transition from the twilights of tribe, religion and tradition, to the dawn of reason, individualism, and liberation.
There is no denying the manifold injustices that cripple the lives of many Muslim women and stunt their potential. But these appear in this condescending liberation narrative as representative of the condition of the millions of Muslim women around the world and exclusive to them. There are no colors, tones, or shades here. There are no living real women, urban or rural, educated or illiterate, affluent or poor, Turkish, Malaysian, or Egyptian - differences so crucial in defining women's life chances and shaping their situations.
All we know about this ghostly creature is her Muslim identity, as though she was entirely shaped and affected by religion and theology irrespective of social background, economic circumstances, political reality, or regional and local cultural traditions. Important as it is, legal and theological reform will on its own do little to improve the lot of impoverished, uneducated, or insecure women in Somalia, Iraq, or rural Bangladesh.
The narrative revolves around a dehistoricised, universal "Muslim woman"; a crushing model that oppresses flesh and blood Muslim women, denies them subjectivity and singularity, and claims to sum up their lives with all their vicissitudes and details from cradle to coffin. It reserves for itself the right to speak for them exclusively, whether they like it or not.
Representations of the Muslim woman serve a dual legitimizing function, at once confirming and justifying the west's narrative of itself, and of the Muslim other. The victimized Muslim woman is the lens through which Islam and Muslim society are seen. In medieval times she was cast as an intimidating powerful queen or termagant (like Bramimonde in the Chanson de Roland, or Belacane in Parzival) reflecting an intimidating powerful Muslim civilization. And when the power balance began to shift in Europe's favor in the 17th and 18th centuries, she was made to mirror her society's fallen fortunes. She turned into a harem slave, leading little more than a dumb animal existence, subjugated, inert, abject, powerless, and invisible. She is the quintessential embodiment of a despotic, deformed, and backward Islam.
It is Europe, later the west, that must penetrate her iron cage and break her shackles. It must save the victim and civilize her oppressors. The more victimized "the Muslim woman", the greater the need for the liberated west to liberate her. The noble intervention is for her and in her interest, not for the west, or its interests.
It was indeed no coincidence that a great many colonial officers and archivists devotedly recorded instances of barbarity among the colonized, practices like sati, the ban on widow marriage, or the practice of child marriage in India, or slavery and genital mutilation in Africa. Although these atrocities were not inventions, their chronicling had and still has a purpose: It provides the moral framework for intervention.
As a couplet by Torquato Tasso puts it,
And when her city and her state was lost,
Then her person lov'd and honor'd most.
But "love" and "honor" haven't exactly been the experience of Iraqi women when their cities fell under American occupation. Rights which took decades to secure have crumbled away in the space of months. From doctors, scientists, engineers or businesswomen, today they find themselves incarcerated in their homes unable to move around for fear of being kidnapped, raped, or assassinated. Those who escape the bombs and bullets of the occupying army, die at the hands of the Iraqi security forces and out of control extremist and sectarian militias which flourished since 2003, as Maggie O'Kane demonstrated in her moving piece on Cif yesterday. In the past three months 45 innocent women were murdered in cold blood in Basra.
The truth is that just as there is a military machine of hegemony, there is a discursive machine of hegemony. When armies move on the ground to conquer and subjugate, they need moral and ideological cover. It is this that gives the dominant narrative of the "Muslim woman" its raison d'etre.
No wonder then that the "Muslim woman" liberation warriors, the likes of Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, and Pascal Bruckner, were the same people who cheered American/ British troops as they blasted their way through Kabul and Baghdad, and who will no doubt cheer and dance once more should Iran or Syria be bombed next. Soldiers shoot with their guns; they with their pens. They are hegemony's apologists. Without them the emperor stands naked.
Soumaya Ghannoushi is an academic and freelance writer. She is a researcher at the University of London.